Prehistoric art in Asturias
Paintings, engravings: 24,000 BC
La Peña de Candamo contains a variety of paintings and engravings, and is seen as one of the great paleolithic caves of Asturias in northwest Spain.
Situated in a hot-spot of Stone Age culture, its oldest art dates to 30,000 BC, although disturbance of the site by visitors appears to have contaminated some of the dating results.
The most reliable radiocarbon dates obtained so far, suggest artistic activity began at the site around 24,000 BC and lasted for about 16,000 years.
This makes it an important prehistoric sanctuary within the region of Franco-Cantabrian art during the Upper Paleolithic.
Archaeologists have found almost no evidence that humans lived in the cave. This suggests that, like Chauvet Cave and many others, the site and its art was used for ceremonial purposes only.
Since 2008, the Peña de Candamo cave has been designated part of the UNESCO World Heritage centre, known as 'The Cave of Altamira and Palaeolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain', also called the 'Cantabrian Corniche'.
The cave of Peña de Candamo sits in a limestone outcrop, known as La Peña, which is situated on the right bank of the Nalón river, overlooking the Nalón valley, about 4 kilometres from San Román, and 12 kilometres from the coast.
The Candamo Cave Interpretation Centre and Educational Exhibition is located in the Valdes-Bazán Mansion, in the village of San Román, about 4 kilometres from the cave. In addition to housing full-scale replicas of the treasures of the cave, it presents a multimedia display which explains the prehistoric art of northern Spain.
The district surrounding La Peña is rich in paleolithic culture, from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic.
La Peña de Candamo was known to locals from the second half of the 19th century, but its art was discovered only in 1914 by Eduardo Hernández Pacheco, professor of geology at Madrid's Universidad Complutense, (who would publish an exceptional monograph on the cave in 1919), and by the Count of La Vega del Sella, a local prehistorian.
The cave was used as a shelter during the Spanish Civil War, before being designated a National Monument in 1942, after which it became an important tourist attraction.
Unfortunately the influx of visitors caused irreversible damage to the artworks. In 1980 the cave was closed to the public for conservation reasons and only reopened in the 1990s.
In 2007, a new multidisciplinary research project was begun at the cave to correlate and update all the data on its parietal art, and assess its contribution to Spanish culture.
Visitors enter the cave through an enlarged reception chamber. This leads to a gallery which has a small side chamber (the Chamber of the Red Signs), which contains a number of red ochre markings on the ceiling.
The gallery then leads to the main chamber (the Hall of the Engravings), which houses most of the art. This large chamber, is ringed by spectacular geological formations (calcite deposit flows, columns, and stalagmites).
At the end there is another small chamber (the Batiscias Gallery), the name of which derives from the large number of bat flies at the site. It was originally thought the chamber was devoid of art, but recent inspections found otherwise.
In total, the cave extends for about 70 metres.
Here there are three schematic figures which have deteriorated badly due to vandalism. As a result, this chamber is not open to the public.
This large chamber has six clearly defined areas of art works. From left to right they are as follows.
1. Stalagmite Outcrop
This small outcrop is decorated with deep engravings of two horses’ heads and a female deer.
2. Wall of Engravings
This area measures roughly six metres in length and eight metres in width. The figures here are divided into two different groups.
In the left hand section, there is a carefully defined female cervid, and a large group of painted and engraved figures, which include aurochs, deer, goats, horses, a human-like figure, and what may be a seal.
On the extreme left of this area there is a crowded mass of superimposed images of animal figures (engraved and painted), including deer, chamois, and bison (including one with human features).
On the right, we find several aurochs, interspersed with a series of black dot signs and lines. These abstract signs are positioned next to a variety of additional animal engravings, which include identify aurochs, bison, horses, a goat, a male boar and a large stag.
The stag - the cave's most famous image - appears to have been pierced by a number of spears.
3. Stalagmite Outcrop No 2
This is decorated with a number of black linear markings together with a partially engraved horse accentuated with red-ochre.
4. Small Chamber
This is a small recess set high in the cave and bounded by two stalagmitic deposit flows. Although there are only six animal figures in this area (four horses, an auroch and a bison), the artistic quality of one of the horses makes it one of the masterpieces of the cave. This figure, light brown in colour, is painted in ochre tones and positioned in the centre of the recess. It was created as part of a dramatic pictorial display, which involved the removal of certain speleothems, to allow it to be seen from the floor area of the Main Chamber.
5. Goat Panel
One of several dramatic rock formations above the floor of the chamber, it contains the figure of a single goat.
The lower sections of these calcite columns are decorated with a number of large dots in red ochre.
This area contains a number of indistinct markings, both painted and engraved, which archaeologists believe are partially drawn animal figures.
The cave of La Peña has undergone considerable alteration since its discovery, which renders radiocarbon dating of the parietal representations very difficult due to possible contamination.
Scientists have obtained conflicting accelerator mass spectrometry dates for both animal paintings and abstract signs, between 30,000 BC, and 13,000 BC.
The most reliable dates are those obtained from the black spots located on the large aurochs, in a narrow recess. They date to between 20,600 BC and 24,000 BC - similar to the dates previously obtained for several black bison, high up on a wall, which are unlikely to have been contaminated.
Overall, the chronology of the decoration process at La Peña de Candamo cave reveals four main stages of rock art, from the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian, as follows:
For more famous decorated caves in Spain, dating back to the Stone Age, see the following articles:
(1) "Preliminary evaluation of uranium-series disequilibrium as a tool for absolute age measurement on marine carbonates." Broecker, W. S. (1963): Journal of Geophysical Research, 68, pp. 2817-2834.
(2) "U-series dating, evolution of art and neandertal." Clottes, J. (2012): I.N.O.R.A., 64, pp. 1-6.
(3) "Chauvet Cave's art is not Aurignacian: a new examination of the archaeological evidence and dating procedures." Combier, J. and Jouvé, G. (2012): Quartar, 59, pp. 131-152.
(4) "Non-invasive portable instrumentation to study Palaeolithic rock paintings: the case of La Peña Cave in San Román de Candamo (Asturias, Spain)." Olivares, M. et al; (2013): Journal of Archaeological Science, 40, pp. 1354-1360.
(5) "U-series dating of Paleolithic art in 11 caves in Spain." Pike, A. W. G. et al: Science, 336 (15), pp. 1409-1413.